The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a seismic shift in the workplace when remote work became almost unavoidable. However, workers have sprinted past the short-term joys of the flexibility and comfort of working from home. The novelty is wearing off. The lack of structure and the isolation inherent in remote work environments are beginning to take a toll on employees’ mental health. Remote working may not be in all employees’ best mental health interests. According to the SHRM, “Fully remote (40%) and hybrid work (38%) are associated with an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression symptoms compared to in-person work (35%).”
Over the past few years, employers have tried to mitigate mental health issues by introducing several initiatives, including:
- Four-day workweeks
- Mental health days
- Online events
- Enhanced counselling benefits
- Free mental health apps
- Additional paid time off
However, these solutions often feel like temporary fixes rather than long-term strategies. It’s time to acknowledge that some individuals may thrive better in more structured environments. No amount of extra pay or mental health support programs can change this. In fact, we should heed warnings from long-time freelancers and others who have been working from home for years. They warn that not everyone can adapt to a remote working model for the rest of their lives.
Trivial inconveniences lead to a growing sense of isolation
Some workers are naturally more gregarious. They crave more connection with others who understand them and are part of their community. Others love the freedom of working independently but miss the sense of accountability and synergy of being around others in an office environment.
For many, especially those who live alone or whose social skills have become rusty, being on their own most of the day can lead to a growing sense of isolation. In this environment, even trivial inconveniences can impact mental health. Stress can accumulate over time, leading to a downward spiral of significant mental health and well-being issues.
Employees seldom share their frustration over minor things during a conversation with an employer. They fear seeming incompetent, unwilling to adapt, or worse, losing the freedom of working from home. They’d rather stick it out – with ever-worsening morale – than be dragged back to the formal office environment.
Adopting a formal troubleshooting program
The healthcare sector is increasingly embracing the GROSS (“getting rid of stupid stuff”) approach. It implements solutions suggested by their frontline workers to resolve minor, everyday problems. It improves operational efficiency and fosters a supportive work environment that prioritizes mental health. This approach may be useful in other sectors. Loosely interpreted, GROSS amounts to a “housekeeping” exercise to solve common daily irritations for remote workers.
Focus areas for active troubleshooting
Apart from providing the “usual” flexible work hours or no-meeting days, don’t wait until your employee asks for a new stapler before you address the practical aspects of working from home. Here are nine initiatives that can help organisations become proactive in the hybrid workplace.
1. Training programs
The freedom of working from home could become someone’s greatest enemy. Offer time management training and teach employees to use digital tools effectively before enthusing about maintaining work-life balance.
2. Home office setup
You can’t expect the same results from someone who has to balance the laptop on their knees as you can from someone who has a purpose-built home office. Consider offering a one-time allowance for employees to set up a dedicated workspace at home. They could get an ergonomic chair, desk, and other necessary office equipment.
3. Stationery allowance
The cost of living increases are affecting everyone. Does your finance department expect workers to show the stub of a pencil before they’re allowed to go out and buy a new one and then wait two months for the expense claim to be processed? Consider a stationery allowance.
4. Technology upgrades
Regularly review and upgrade employees’ hardware, such as computers, monitors, keyboards, and mice. These are the very basics they need to stay productive.
5. Provide a basic IT help desk
Don’t leave them with connectivity issues or hardware failures. Provide software upgrades, antivirus software, and subscriptions to necessary productivity tools.
6. Internet subsidy
A stable internet connection is crucial for remote work. Employers could consider providing a monthly internet subsidy to help cover the cost of high-speed internet.
7. Virtual private network (VPN)
It remains the employer’s responsibility to guard company data and protect confidentiality. Employers can ensure secure and reliable access to company resources by providing a VPN, safe file-sharing options, and a static IP address for their workers.
8. Organize online buddy teams
Why are startups like workbuddiesonline and focusmate springing up? Some employees miss some buzz around them to perform at their best. They might be shy about admitting their need to their employer, but they still crave it enough to seek it out online.
9. Regular mental health check-ins
Managers should have regular check-ins with their team members. They can use this time to discuss work and understand any challenges their team faces while working from home.
10. Collaboration software
Promote collaboration tools that assist communication and teamwork among remote and hybrid teams. Easy and efficient collaboration is essential for productivity in a hybrid workplace.
Acknowledge the alternative
All the troubleshooting and removing minor frustrations can’t solve every problem. Suppose there are no clear markers of improvement or, worse, signs of an inexorable backslide into poor productivity. In that case, it may be time to acknowledge that some individuals may thrive better in more structured environments. No amount of home comforts or mental health support programs can change this.
In specific industries, the mere suggestion of getting employees to return to the office is considered condescending and patronizing. However, perceptions may shift over time. Employees might realize that they function more effectively in a formal work setting and that it is a healthier choice for some regarding mental well-being. Providing employees the option to return to the office is a strategic move. Employers need to recognize this and strive to create supportive environments that can cater to the diverse needs of their workforce.
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